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By Mandy Vicsai 

WOW! First Place Fall Contest Winner


Mark Twain said "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." This is especially true for stories of 500-words. Yet shorter stories can be punchier, more focused and as a writer more fulfilling because of the challenge they present.
This article gives you seven practical ways to cull your words to the required count. It's based on my story Strange Doin's, winner of WOW!'s Fall Competition. I'll draw on the major drafts of this story for examples (they're highlighted in the actual drafts). They're available right below, if for nothing else than to illustrate how the first draft and the final product are often world's apart. So if you think your first draft is sub-standard take heart - it's just the beginning.

You really can make your writing sing if you remember to:

Believe - yes, you do have something worth saying
Be patient - the answers do come if you let them
Be disciplined - take the time to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite
Respect - listen to that (often annoying) little voice; it will help you honour your talent

Writing Tip:

Save major changes as separate drafts. If you decide to revert to a previous idea you won't need to rewrite it.

The first and second drafts

The primary rule of writing is - write. Just get your story on paper and don't be too concerned with word count. For a target count of 500 words, my first draft is usually 800-1000 words. That indicates to me I'm passionate about the topic and gives me enough substance to pare it back to a piece that really hits the mark. The first two drafts of Strange Doin's were 871 and 942 words respectively.
For those who haven't read the story, here's a summary: Since participating in a student exchange from Australia to USA ten years ago, the main character (who is actually never named) has led a nomadic life. She once again has the opportunity to relocate. This time, though a pom pom she lost on that exchange arrives on her doorstep. It prompts memories of her host father Joe and causes her to reassess her life's direction.

Third draft and beyond

Once you've decided your plot and have the basic story written, you can begin to look at the structure, the characters and that all-important word count. The following seven points are the steps I followed when re-writing and finally editing Strange Doin's.

1. Are there any unnecessary characters?

Because each character needs a certain amount of explanation, a 500-word story lends itself to three or four main characters. There simply isn't the word-space to accommodate more. Sometimes you may wonder whether or not to include a character. If you're unsure, draft two versions of your story - one with and one without.
Example: Draft one introduces not only Joe, but his daughter Melody. Melody doesn't appear in drafts two and three. However, she needs to be there to add substance to the character of Joe and to the main character's American experience. In the fourth draft, Melody becomes Milly and gets a permanent bit-part.

2. Is there any unnecessary plot?

Every word must count so even the smallest of plot details need to be ruthlessly scrutinised. Include only activities that add background or move the story forward.
Example: In the first draft, paragraph one uses 27 words to describe Judy making a cup of coffee. The coffee doesn't add to her interaction with the main character, so by the second draft, Judy is beverage-less.

3. What really needs to be explained and what doesn't?

What you leave out has as much impact on the story as what you leave in. Consider your audience. What will they already know?
Examples: Strange Doin's makes mention of Tahoe. Will everyone reading the story know that this refers to Lake Tahoe? Possibly not. So in the fifth draft, this becomes Lake Tahoe.
Is it necessary to describe Australia and how the exchange year came about in great detail? No, not for this story. So the 58 words used to describe the main character's Australian home and her trip to the USA in the first draft become 21 words in the final draft.

4. What can the reader glean without great explanation?

You don't need to tell your readers everything. Let them work some things out for themselves.
Example: In drafts two and three I've devoted 24 words to a description of the relationship between Judy and the main character. By the final draft, there's nothing that specifically explains their relationship. However, a reader would probably still say the main character and Judy are close friends because of the tone of their conversations, Judy's knowledge of the main character's exchange year and the fact that Judy hugs the main character.

5. Is there some lengthy dialogue that can be converted to description?

An editor once commented that I use too much dialogue and that I should tell more of the story. This conflicts wildly with the concept of showing not telling, yet it highlights the fact that interesting writing is a balance of the two - understanding that balance is part of the art of writing.
Example: In draft four there is a 316-word conversation that begins with Judy asking, "You could find another nomad?" In it we hear about the women's relationship, the arrival of the pom-pom, Joe's concept of a strange doin' and why the main character is deciding not to take the new job. Basically, it's too long. In the final draft, this conversation becomes 133 words of prose beginning halfway through the first major paragraph with the words, "The things I remember most" and continuing through the next paragraph. That's a saving of 192 words and a greater balance between dialogue and narrative.

6. Is there some description you can convert into dialogue?

Well, I've already admitted I generally have the reverse challenge i.e. too much dialogue. So there aren't any real-life examples from Strange Doin's that illustrate this point. Instead let's consider a hypothetical beginning that's narrative, not the final copy's opening - 57 words of dialogue.
I think this mangy ball of tangled wool is an omen. I can tell Judy is unconvinced because her eyebrow arched most uncharitably when she saw it. I suppose even I have to admit it does look like something the cat dragged in. Still, it's unbelievable! This is the pom-pom from a beanie Joe, my exchange host father, gave me. I thought I'd lost it ten years ago when we were skiing at Lake Tahoe.
The narrative is 75 words - an additional 14 words. While narrative certainly has a place, in this instance the dialogue gives us all the relevant information, provides some action and sets the tone for the story that follows.

7. Are there any unnecessary words?

This is where the serious word counts begin. Because every word counts - literally - taking out even just a single word makes a difference. Patrol your story like a hungry shark.
Examples: (bold denotes deleted words)

Some final words of. . . wisdom?

Finetune your way of writing

What I've outlined works for me; you may find some of the suggestions useful and discard others. Writing is very personal, so do whatever works for you.

Be ruthlessly honest when asking: Does this add anything?

There's nothing like a definitive word count to have that annoyingly persistent little voice slicing and dicing with ruthless abandon. As sad as it is to delete that favourite phrase or sentence, the most annoying thing about that little voice is, it's usually right.

Keep the colour in your story

Often when we're editing, there's a temptation to take out all description and anything that seems frivolous. Yet words that bring your characters, settings and story alive for the reader are doing a very important job. Keep them and simply make sure that they are as economical as possible.

Enjoy your writing and your readers will enjoy reading it

I can't remember where I gleaned this wonderful piece of wisdom, yet it's one I use constantly. When I feel good about a story, I know my readers will feel good too - at least the majority of them. When I'm trying to force the creative process, and not succeeding, I know my readers will be snoozing halfway through the first sentence. If that happens to you, perhaps take a break; or take the bare facts and write from a different point of view. Try anything that excites and inspires your creativity.

Honor your talent

Each and every one of us has an inbuilt honor system. For some people it's an annoying little voice; for others it's a certain feeling; for others it's seeing the words on the screen. Basically you honor our talent when you persevere until you know you've done a good job; you've done your best, not someone else's. You're acknowledging your style, your creativity and your way of doing things. There's room enough for everyone, so push your boundaries.


Mandy Vicsai's Bio:

Mandy divides her professional time between copywriting and creative writing.  She aims to entertain, inspire and empower with her stories and is currently finishing her first novel.  Mandy believes you are never too young - nor too old - to fulfil a dream.  In fact, she has recently begun the journey to a long-held ambition - learning karate.  Together with her husband Peter and feline friend, Pussycat, Mandy calls Melbourne Australia home.
Note: Mandy is the First Place Winner in the WOW! Women On Writing Fall 2006 Flash Fiction Contest. She continues to amaze us with her creative fiction and non-fiction writing.


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